Ensemble Artists are Ready to BUILD a New World. Is the World Ready to Let Them?

Kristina Wong on the campaign trail. (Annie Lesser)

Normally, every two years, the performance venues located in and around San Francisco’s Project Artaud buzz with activity from a variety of ensemble theater-makers for foolsFURY’s Fury Factory Festival. On any given day of the festival, one might see fragments of works-in-progress, wild forays into the furthest reaches of imagination, reflections on the nature of a mediated existence, works that explore how history and story are shaped, and pieces that thrust the audience into an active, participatory role. It's a glorious assemblage of collective creation.

As a field, ensemble theater has long challenged industry “norms,” often with transformative results. While there are almost as many ways to create as there are ensembles creating it, the process is frequently open-ended. A single work might take years of collaborative, multi-disciplinary endeavor before it’s staged for a particular audience. Characteristics that ensemble artists share include an appetite for exploration, a flexibility of medium, and an ability—even enthusiasm—for adapting to unusual and challenging circumstances.

The BUILD organizers in conversation: Festival Director Claudia Alick and foolsFURY Artistic Director Debórah Eliezer. (screenshot courtesy of foolsFURY)

This year, foolsFURY got the opportunity to display their own adaptability by postponing this year's Fury Factory festival to 2021, and instead have reapportioned their energies towards a digital convening for ensemble artists intent on reimagining not only their own work, but the field at large. In the wake of the pandemic shutdown, the pressing calls for racial and economic justice that have entered the national discourse have proliferated in the arts sector as well. And who better to tackle those issues head-on than the artists whose practice frequently asks them to iterate, to challenge, to dismantle, and to reconstruct?

So instead of attending the Fury Factory as I’d originally planned, this weekend I attended foolsFURY’s BUILD From Here, a two-day online workshop addressing these exact issues. As foolsFURY artistic director Debórah Eliezer observed in her opening remarks, “ensemble practices have prepared us uniquely for this moment.” And with Guest Festival Director and transmedia specialist Claudia Alick at the helm, it wasn’t just ensemble practices but technological know-how that made foolsFURY's convening possible, and impactful for participants on both side of the screen.

At the core of much of the discourse was the role of artists and arts workers in reshaping not only the way we work, but the cultural landscape, and by extension, the political one as well. And who better to kick off that conversation than the multi-talented performance artist Kristina Wong, who, rather than embarking on her previously scheduled “political campaign” around the country, was forced to stay home with the rest of us.

Dyalekt and Pamela Capalad of Brunch and Budget, who presented on the racial wealth gap and art shaping culture. (courtesy of Brunch and Budget)

Instead of spending time mourning what could have been, Wong pivoted to digital performance, and, more importantly, used her considerable skills as a designer and fabric artist to mastermind a nationwide network of volunteer mask-sewers. Donating PPE to frontline workers and vulnerable populations across the country, the Auntie Sewing Squad (ASS) is but one example of how creative energy can be harnessed to meet societal needs outside of the walls of a “theater.”

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“Culture has the power to organize faster than our politicians,” Wong pointed out, showing off her new home “theater” from which she’s also recently launched a completely-reimagined digital version of her erstwhile “political campaign.”

“Art shapes our culture, it shapes our society, and not only that but it shapes policies that we make,” Dyalekt, from the Museum of Dead Words, emphasized in a later presentation, with wife Pamela Capalad of Brunch and Budget. It was a reminder, as Dyalekt said, that “government is run by people.”

NET's Alison De La Cruz, who presented on aesthetic equity. (courtesy of Alison De La Cruz)

At the heart of the convening were deep conversations about the matter at hand. Namely, how do we reconfigure the cultural sector to center racial justice, economic equity, accessibility, and care for community in every project and organization? A facilitated conversation about the concept of aesthetic equity led by Alison De La Cruz (representing the Network of Ensemble Theatres) generated action steps among the participants. These included changing philanthropic funding criteria, acknowledging the value of lived experience over academic experience, decolonizing the field of criticism, and working to counteract the scarcity model that fosters a climate of competition over limited resources, focusing instead on generation by pooling together materials, space, skills, and knowledge.

On day two, those conversations were expanded and built upon with presentations about alternative economic models and financial acumen, horizontal leadership, the racial wealth divide, and the ways that culture actively shapes society. One of many takeaways being: if creatives are shaping the culture that shapes society, why shouldn’t we put that energy to work in creating the society we want to live in, with the communities we want to be a part of?

Panel discussions with members of culturally specific organizations, and ensemble artists who have been discovering new ways to create work both digitally and distanced, bookended the conference with considerations of joyous possibility.

Dr. Ayodele Nzinga reflects on creating theater for the now. (screenshot courtesy of foolsFURY)

“We learned something really crucial about capital... we are amazingly abundant in terms of relationships,” remarked Dr. Ayodele Nzinga of Oakland’s Lower Bottom Playaz, who just wrapped up a digitally reimagined festival of their own. Inviting collaborators from around the world, BAMBDFEST grew from its initial projection of 2,500 audience members and participants in physical space to over 10,000 in digital space (breaking down barriers of time, space, and budget being several advantages of pandemic producing).

Interwoven throughout the weekend were 18 mini-performances created by the companies originally slated for the Fury Factory, giving a real-time snapshot of the various methods other makers are incorporating in their own work now that much of the work has to be recreated or reconfigured for distanced audiences and collaborators. Short films, songs, conversations, clips from past performances, live beatboxing, and even a few familiar Zoom boxes highlighted the many creative problem-solving tools that artists work with every day. The challenge at hand is how to use those tools both to dismantle and to rebuild—in and outside of the performing arts.

Performer Pratik Motwani, presenting his artistic manifesto at BUILD From Here. (screenshot courtesy of foolsFURY)

“I am beginning to see the shape of that art hammer that has the potential to make that foundational impact,” performer Pratik Motwani declared in his passionate manifesto. “Which nail shall we strike first?”

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Find out more about foolsFURY and BUILD here.